Canaanites Among Us

Canaanites Among Us July 30, 2017

You may have already seen the news that DNA analysis of Canaanite skeletons in the region of ancient Sidon in what is today Lebanon shows their close genetic relationship to the current inhabitants of that country.

Let me start by pointing out that some of the headlines that I have seen circulating about this are simply wrong, and doubly so. First of all, the Bible is very clear (in places) that the Canaanites were never completely wiped out from Israel. But second and more importantly, historians have always been aware that the Phoenicians were a Canaanite people, and so the discovery that their descendants are to be found in the regions they historically inhabited should not be a surprise either. Indeed, I had been under the impression that Yossi Nagar had done related work many years ago, although it has been published entirely in modern Hebrew and thus neglected in the English-speaking world. In fact, his research provides evidence of what some historians had concluded based on texts, linguistics, and material remains, namely that the earliest proto-Israelites were themselves Canaanites. As he said in a documentary, the Canaanites and the Israelites are the same and yet different. The difference is one of ideology, while the sameness is one of biology.

See Jonathan Bernier’s blog post as well as the articles in the New York Times, New ScientistScience, National GeographicScience News, ABC (no not that one, the other one), Archaeology News Network, and Archaeology for more on this, and the Independent and Friendly Atheist for illustrating particularly well the kind of reporting that I am criticizing. Even in the National Geographic article, Kristin Romey starts with an oversimplification, but then goes on to write:

Despite massive cultural and political upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age in the 12th century B.C., Canaanite presence persisted in the region, most notably in powerful port cities along the coast, where they were known to the Greeks as Phoenicians.

No archaeological evidence for the widespread destruction of Canaanite settlements described in the Bible has yet been identified, and many scholars believe that the Israelites, who appear around the beginning of the Iron Age, may have originally been Canaanites.

There have been other interesting articles in the news related to archaeology and the Bible. One article in the Times of Israel suggests that the Magdala Stone, now considered in conjunction with other evidence, may indicate that priests who fled Jerusalem after its destruction by the Romans kept practicing priestly rituals in Galilee. And Bill Caraher shared his introduction to a forthcoming Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology in pdf form.

On a note vaguely related to the topic that we started on, let me mention that I recently ordered a copy of a vintage game which is a variation on the popular Settlers of Catan, called Settlers of Canaan. I always want to pronounce the “Canaan” in the title differently so that the pun is audible and not just visible. Have you played this biblically-themed version of the Catan game?

Claude Doumet-Serhal/Sidon Excavation
Claude Doumet-Serhal/Sidon Excavation
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  • Nick G

    The thread will likely be overrun by fundamentalists insisting that the Israelites did too commit genocide at God’s command!

  • Gary

    I’d be more interested in them comparing Neanderthal DNA with the Canaanite bones. Neanderthals lived in the areas 70-150 thousand years ago, and the area was a major highway from Africa to Europe. Actually, it might be interesting to see if Canaanite and Israelite bones have the same % of Neanderthal DNA. Although maybe there aren’t enough uncontaminated samples to draw any conclusions. Even the Neanderthals weren’t exterminated completely, and weren’t totally separate from us. Must have been some wild times in those caves in Israel. Probably after beer was invented!

    • Gary

      And, I might add, the habit of all cultures in those days, of capturing and raping enemy woman from defeated tribes, makes DNA evaluation for the purpose of “extermination” proof or in-proof, a rather useless task.

      • Numbers 31: God commands the destruction of the Midianites, but allows the Israelite soldiers to take all the Midianite virgins as spoils of war.

        That’s where all that Canaanite DNA comes from!

    • Marja Erwin

      “Actually, it might be interesting to see if Canaanite and Israelite bones have the same % of Neanderthal DNA.”

      Why would you expect any difference?

      • Gary

        Actually, I would not expect any difference.

      • Gary

        But if there was a difference, that would lead to some interesting conjecture. Neanderthal DNA is not present in Africa. So if Canaanites have more, does that imply Israelites originated in Egypt? Since the dates are so extreme, and the samples so small, I doubt if any real conclusions could be made. But it would be worth testing for, I think. Why do you ask? Although, I think I probably know why.

  • James, there may be a typo in your link to Bernier’s blog post. The link is failing. Should be this:

  • Brandon Roberts


  • Alan Christensen

    “I always want to pronounce the ‘Canaan’ in the title differently so that the pun is audible and not just visible.”
    But is that pronunciation Canaanical?

    • And now I am thinking that I should do a deck of cards featuring texts from Ugarit, Phoenicia, and Moab and call it “Canaan: The Card Game”…

    • Wes Bergen

      There’s a Canaan Valley in West Virginia, but its pronounced ka-NANE locally

  • Frank Blasi

    According to genealogical records recorded in Genesis and 1 Chronicles, Israel were never related to the Canaanites, as Abraham was descended from Shem the son of Noah, whilst the Canaanites were sons of Ham, Shem’s brother. Abraham gave specific instructions not to let his son Isaac marry a Canaanite woman.

    • yesteray

      I’m not sure what you think your point is. Being descendants of brothers means that you are related.

      • Frank Blasi

        My point is that the ancient Hebrews were not Canaanites, as the main article imply.

        • The genetic, linguistic, and cultural evidence indicates otherwise.

    • That is the claim of those genealogies, sure, but a historian will not prioritize late genealogies of uncertain historicity above the genetic, linguistic, and cultural evidence.

  • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

    Not all descendants were put to death. As a matter of fact even in the passage here in Joshua a few verses lower, from where the mention of the other ppls of the land, it is in Scripture that the Hivites ‘made peace’ with Israel and thus were not put to death. Clearly, that means the whole of the Canaanite DNA was not destroyed. Not that there weren’t also other ones that lived outside of the land of Israel that were never part of the order from God to put them to death.

    Joshua 11:19 There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon…. -[ESV


    • Nick G

      The archeological evidence is quite clear that no Israelite invasion of Canaan ever took place: the Israelites were Canaanites, who became culturally distinct in situ. See for example Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts.

  • Uri

    To me the most interesting conclusion is that modern Lebanese are not Arabs but rather Arab-speaking Canaanites.

    • Michael Wilson

      Language and DNA don’t follow the same path which is good, otherwise I’d be genetically a French moron.